Conductor James Gaffigan glad to embrace the music from across the Americas

James Gaffigan has become a regular guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony, but he’ll never forget his first time.

“I was stupid enough to make my debut in Chicago with Beethoven 5 and the Emperor Concerto,” he said recently by phone. “I was very young, and with repertoire that well-known, an orchestra will eat you alive, even if they like you.”

Despite his self-criticism, the CSO liked him enough to bring him back, and he is a frequent guest with many other major orchestras in the United States and Europe. But, he says, “Conductors are all very insecure people. We know we’re being judged, and it’s tough.” But more experience — both with the scores and with the ensembles he works with — has brought more perspective.

Gaffigan will lead an all-Americas program with the CSO Oct. 19-24, featuring music of Gershwin, Bernstein, Barber and Revueltas. For years, he tried to avoid being typecast as the American conductor who does American music, but “now that I’m in my 40s, I thought it would be fun to do. It’s all music that I love.”

The main work on the second half of the program will be Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which Gaffigan calls “the American masterpiece. It’s rarely performed at the level that the CSO can do it, so it’s an opportunity to take the piece as seriously as it should be taken.” And Sensemayá by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, is “terrifying and amazing. It’s a hell of a way to blow the roof off at the end of the program.”

After a previous visit by the conductor to conduct Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront,” Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein wrote, “Gaffigan is a terrific advocate for Bernstein’s music and he drew a reading both powerful and sensitive (in the love music) from the CSO.”

For years, he tried to avoid being typecast as the American conductor who does American music, but “now that I’m in my 40s, I thought it would be fun to do. It’s all music that I love.” — James Gaffigan

Gaffigan did stints in his 20s as a staff assistant in Cleveland and San Francisco, conducting youth concerts and pops concerts with little rehearsal time and covering for the scheduled conductor of the subscription concerts. “I would watch great conductors come in and be a success, or fail, or be mediocre,” he recalls. “I would watch how they used their rehearsal time, and how they communicated. If they’re talking down or lecturing, forget it. Nothing will happen.”

When he got a chance to be on the podium himself, he let the musicians help him. “They took me under their wing,” he says. “They would say things like, ‘You don’t need to subdivide that passage. Just get us started and we’ll be OK.’ People ask me who was my teacher, and I say the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony.”

As a more mature conductor, Gaffigan has found a niche in leading opera. “I love theaters — carpentry, lights, makeup, singers, chorus, orchestra,” he says. “And I love it because people don’t look at me. I get a chance to make singers sound and look good.”

A century ago, conductors often got their start in the opera house and then branched out into orchestra music, but “nowadays it’s backward,” he says. “No one would let me conduct opera. I had to make my debut with the Chicago Symphony before I got my first opera.”

He currently serves as music director of both the Komische Oper Berlin and the opera company of Valencia, Spain. His work in America is limited to guest conducting, but he quickly squelches any talk of a music directorship — at least, for now.

“To put it crudely, being a guest conductor is like having an affair,” he says. “You come in, you have a good time, you leave. Being a music director is like a marriage. You have to talk about things that aren’t so romantic and clean the weeds and get into the dirt. And you have to want to do that — cultivating audiences, meeting with donors, leading educational concerts.” (The norm is for an assistant conductor to lead educational concerts, but Gaffigan believes it should be a music director’s job, too.) 

But when he visits Chicago as a guest again, he is ready for a good week. “I love the city of Chicago,” he says. “Everything about it, the culture, the food, the restaurant scene. I’m excited to see the Chicago public again, and I have many friends in the orchestra.”